Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor


Teaching enhances music making: Myra Melford

Now comfortably settled in the Bay area after 16-years teaching improvisation and composition at the University of California, Berkeley, pianist Myra Melford tells San Francisco Classical Voice’s Jeff Kaliss that being in an academic environment has inspired her own musical practice.  Not only is working with students in ethnomusicology as well as those studying improvised and notated sounds helped change how she approaches her sound, but the institute also gives her a forum in which to play with and present other musicians in concert. Speaking of the university Melford says: “I’ve seen an openness and embrace of improvisation as a valid and important form of music-making and the nurturing of musicians who are both composers and performers”.  She adds that she's able to teach classically trained chamber musicians to begin improvising partially because she has been thinking of her own music as chamber music since the 1990s. Meanwhile she’s able to invite such musicians as saxophonists Ingrid Laubrock and Tim Berne plus pianists Kris Davis and Matt Mitchell to give duo concerts at the school. Additionally, with her advanced student ensemble, the Berkeley Nu Jazz Collective opening, she can play her own and compositions by Rova Saxophone Quartet members Steve Adams and Jon Raskin with Rova in a special university concert. As an aside, Melford states that some of her ensembles' names and composition titles reflect her ongoing obsession with the art of painter Cy Twombly. READ

The Brutalist Modularism of Tom Djll

While some of the details discussed about patches and performance ratios used in modular systems may be a little too technical for the non-specialist, Philippe Petit’s interview with Tom Djll for his MODULISME radio program does provide an overview of how the Bay area composer/performer works. Someone who also plays trumpet and has been involved in acoustic projects with the likes of percussionist Gino Robair and guitarist John Shiurba, Djll has a parallel career working with modular systems in groups featuring Robair, Tania Chen, Clarke Robinson, Cheryl Leonard, Andrew Raffo Dewar and many others. Initially influenced by Jazz-Free Music theorists like saxophonists Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, Djll soon discovered the electronic sounds of programming pioneers like Richard Teitelbaum, Hugh Davies, Pauline Oliveros and Sun Ra which lead him to build and experiment with electronic systems on his own. Today what he calls his brutalist modular system has been designed and tweaked with loops, samples and voltage to fit his particular needs. Still, Djll insists that any interested musician should be fearless in experimenting with modular equipment and that there are no wrong ways to do so. READ

Solo, group, composition, improvisation: Saxophonist Patrick Brennan is intent on resolving musical conflicts

Trying to create a comfortable interface among composed and improvised music plus solo and group playing, has been a preoccupation of New York-based saxophonist Patrick Brennan since his youth in Detroit in the 1970s. He tells Perfect Sound Forever’s Daniel Barbiero that this idea was developed over years of study. It started with  hearing primary influences like the Contemporary Jazz Quintet with drummer Roy Brooks or concerts featuring bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones in Detroit; studying scores and counterpoint from earlier European and non-Western musics while studying music in college; attending gigs by saxophonist Sam Rivers, various AACM members, pianist Cecil Taylor and trumpeter Don Cherry in Manhattan; and finally spending most of the 1990s living and playing with local improvisers in Lisbon, who had a different method of dealing with the notated-improvised situation. All this allowed him to conceive of a novel way of working with dialogue and conflict. Brennan explains the technical aspects of his interactive musical strategies at great length, which may be a bit difficult for non-musicians to follow. However listening to his recorded work, especially a recent CD with Portuguese guitarist Abdul Moimême, or his live performances, can be most enlightening. READ

Doing the best that I can in the now: Andrew Cyrille

Master drummer Andrew Cyrille knows how to tell a story, and The Austin Chronicle’s Michael Toland is knowledgeable enough to let him talk before upcoming dates in the Texas city with groups featuring guitarist Bill Frisell or tenor saxophonist Billy Harper. Recalling his learning experiences touring with Blues singer Nellie Lutcher, tenor saxophone avatar Coleman Hawkins, and playing Bop and for dancers, Cyrille still insists that the 11 years he spent in the ever-changing unit under the leadership of pianist Cecil Taylor allowed him to do whatever he felt he needed in the moment and defined him as a innovative percussionist. In demand to play in numberless groups in Europe and the U. S., the veteran drummer is looking forward to upcoming gigs with tenor saxophonist Peter Brötzmann or trumpeter Enrico Rava, as well as a nightclub stint with the cooperative Trio3 featuring bassist Reggie Workman and alto saxophonist Oliver Lake. Meanwhile Cyrille jokes that he’s glad his honed-over-the-years percussion style isn’t universally loved or he wouldn’t have any time off.


Truth and Lies in Billie Holiday’s Autobiography

One of the most notorious books in the Jazz canon – and the basis for an equally salacious film – Lady Sings the Blues, Billie’s Holiday’s so-called autobiography was recently reissued to mark its 50th anniversary. The problem, explains SFGATE’s Jesse Hamlin, is that very little of the book is completely true. Put together by journalist William Dufty from interviews with Holiday, who needed the money because as an ex-felon she couldn’t work in New York clubs, the book contained enough prurient details about heroin addiction, heavy drinking, racism and the steamy underside of nightlife to satisfy the most morbid square. But Dufty was no fact checker and the picture of relentless misery the book recounts is seriously tainted. Instead it should be interpreted as artistic role playing, the way Holiday did when she seemed to be relating the lyrics of some of her most famous songs like “Strange Fruit” to her own experience. Both of the singer’s two godchildren, politician Bevan Dufty and singer Lorraine Feather, concur with this view. Dufty, whose mother Maely Dufty was at one point Holiday’s manager, and Feather, whose father Leonard Feather was Jazz critic and friend of the singer, remember her differently. "She was a very strong person who lived a vibrant, tough life. She never felt sorry for herself,"   says Dufty. READ

Everything You Might Want to know about Pat Thomas and his Music

Exhaustive and almost exhausting, Bill Shoemaker goes through nearly every recording date, performance and opinion of Pat Thomas, the Oxford, UK-based pianist, electronics manipulator and bandleader in this extended Point of Departure feature, including several unwarranted detours into other areas. An anomaly on the British scene, Thomas is a UK-born child of Antiguan parents, who has since adopted Sufism, and is most concerned with acknowledging the Arabic and Muslim roots of Jazz and improvised music as well as its African beginnings. First prominent when he was featured with guitarist Derek Bailey’s Company Weeks in the 1990s, he subsequently worked with other Free Improvisers like saxophonist Evan Parker and drummer Tony Oxley. Yet he also detoured into standard playing with the likes of saxophonist Lol Coxhill, titled his CDs with Arabic phrases and eventually put together the band Black Top with vibraphonist Orphy Robinson that melded African and Caribbean influences with free playing. Besides recently receiving a prestigious award for his composing, Thomas is a member of still other groups, including those which match him with many continental players such as Swedish bassist Joel Grip and French drummer Antonin Gerbal. READ

Many Areas at Once: Gordon Grdina

Trying to characterize an improviser’s lifestyle and connections, the Vancouver Province’s Stuart Derdeyn devotes most of his article on Gordon Grdina noting the number of New York players with whom the Vancouver guitarist and oudist now collaborates. Itemizing the many Manhattan bands under Grdina’s name, Derdeyn reports that the connecting factor is working out a group identity so each sounds like a band, not players thrown together. While the Burnaby-born string player started off in Blues bands, Grdina is now a committed Jazzer, interested in composing and playing tunes that highlight each musician’s individual talents. That means that his trio with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Jim Black shouldn’t sound like his quartet with reedist Oscar Noriega, pianist Russ Lossing and drummer Satoshi Takeishi, and neither should resemble the music of those ensembles in which he plays the Middle Eastern oud. While these configurations are ongoing projects, the scheduling challenge is that each involves playing a few warm-up shows in New York, touring for a few days and finally going into the studio to record.




Bass is the Place: Thomas Morgan

While Jazzwise’s David Gallant seems to spend a little too much space grilling New York acoustic double bassist Thomas Morgan about the type of strings he uses, the brands of basses jhe knows about and his opinion of electric models, some basic information about the musician comes through. Essentially the Bay area-native became interested in string instruments as a child, played in local school orchestras and finally studied at the Manhattan School of Music. Now known for his work backing the likes of pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, drummer Paul Motian and guitarists Bill Frisell, Morgan fondly remembers one early experience, when he convinced his great influence, legendary bassist Ray Brown, to give him a lesson. Brown taught him the importance of left-hand pressure in making a full sound. Self-effacing, Morgan says he’s still learning, especially playing regularly with guitarist Frisell, night after night. Oh and by the way, he’s used the same bass since he started playing in 1994. READ

Inspiration from the Church and the Lounge: Junius Paul

Now known for his distinctive rhythmic contributed to ensembles as different as the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) and those lead by drummer Makaya McCraven, double bass player Junius Paul tells Chicago magazine’s Areif Sless-Kitain that his inspiration comes from two, perhaps contradictory, sources. They’re the result of his two decades plus playing bass in his local church and his experience in the house band at the now defunct Velvet Lounge, the legendary south-side club run by the late tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson. Along with the great number of well-known musicians who participated in the club’s Sunday night jam sessions, including Paul’s mentor drummer Vincent Davis, as he discovered during church services, the bassist would find the music lifting all the players higher and higher without a comedown. Those experiences and others made him confident enough to now tour with the likes of veterans such as the AEC’s multi-reedist Roscoe Mitchell and percussionist Famoudou Don Moye. READ

In For the Long Haul: Famoudou Don Moye

Usually the most unprepossessing member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC), drummer Famoudou Don Moye, 72, is given a forum to philosophize by Jazzwise’s Kevin Le Gendre on the occasion of the AEC’s 50th anniversary tour. The Rochester-born Moye explains how he joined the band, then consisting of saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, plus reedist Shaku Joseph Jarman, trumpeter Lester Bowie and bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut -- the last three of whom have since died -- in the early 1970s, because of his percussion skills. Moye, who played in marching bands as a teenager and whose honorific is a tribute to Guinean master drummer Famoudou Konaté, an early mentor, insists that the influence of elders: parents, grandparents, artists, activists, campaigners, thinkers and leaders from preceding generations are what aided the band in concocting its synthesis of Great Black Music from many areas. Over the years the AEC has assumed many sizes, while playing with guests ranging from Cecil Taylor to Sun Ra, so he welcomes the band’s present large touring ensemble, including trumpeter Hugh Ragin, flutist Nicole Mitchell and bassist Silvia Bolognesi. His recommendation for succeeding in music is the same as succeeding for life in a difficult world: “You have to be positive. The shit can’t get no worse. All you can do is say 'it’s gotta get better'.” READ

Was Hasaan Ibn Ali the missing piano link between Monk and Cecil Taylor?

Jazz history is filled with romantic figures that could have, or should have, become famous, but didn’t. In this piece for Vinyl Me, Please magazine, Ben Ratliff, adds another name to the list: Hasaan Ibn Ali. A singular piano stylist like Herbie Nichols or Charles Mingus sideman John Dennis, the Philadelphia-based Ali spent his time during the 1950s and 1960s practising all day and then “gigging” at local fans’ houses for coffee and cake. Although he made one trio LP with drummer Max Roach, who sponsored him as "The Legendary Hasaan", and bassist Art Davis, mostly he jammed with, influenced and passed on his musical theories to the small group of better-known players who frequented the sessions that took place in the front room of his home. They included such later notable figures as saxophonists Odean Pope and John Coltrane and bassists Jimmy Garrison and Jymie Merritt. Although as the article relates, he had worked in clubs with R&B bands during the 1940s, the mature playing of Ali, who died in 1980, was so uncompromising and his personality was so otherworldly, that he made other advanced stylists like Thelonious Monk, who was known before him; Cecil Taylor, who came to prominence after him; and his contemporary Nichols seem like careerists. READ

Mixing Modern Architecture, Design and Modern Music: Guillermo Gregorio

Many musicians today also work or have worked as academics, but Argentinean-born clarinetist Guillermo Gregorio, 78, is one of the very few whose teaching career encompasses theories of architecture and design. Growing up during one of Argentina’s periodic dictatorships, the Buenos Aires-born Gregorio divided his time between his experiments in contemporary music and improvisation and his studies and later teaching career at the universities of Buenos Aires and La Plata, as he tells Point of Departure’s Jason Weiss. Since any sort of non-conformity was suspect at that time, despite his interest in the music of Ornette Coleman; seeing soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy’s famous Buenos Aires quartet concert; and regularly playing the music of local avant-garde composer Juan Carlos Paz and others, he concentrated on keeping his university job. After he left the country, and finally settled in Chicago, where he taught at Columbia College and the Art Institute of Chicago until 2015, he began playing seriously again. His association with figures like Austrian trumpeter Franz Koglmann and Americans such as pianist Pandelis Karayorgis and violist Mat Maneri eventually led to the recording of his own music and interpretations of works by Cornelius Cardew, Red Norvo and Anthony Braxton. READ

Why New Orleans isn’t Nashville – and Never Will Be

Taking as a starting point the recent retirement of John Snyder as director of Loyola University’s Music Industry Studies Program in New Orleans, Offbeat Magazine’s feisty editor and publisher Jan Ramsey uses Snyder's analysis of the scene to dispute the idea that the Crescent City could ever be another Music City like the one in Tennessee. Snyder, who as a producer worked for such labels as A&M Horizon, Artist’s House, CTI and Atlantic among others, and helped oversee the release of many Jazz milestones, including sessions by alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, bassist Charlie Haden and the Revolutionary Ensemble featuring violinist Leroy Jenkins, is a sophisticated observer of the music business. He starts his musings by pointing out that “New Orleans is more about non-conformity and Nashville is more about conformity,” and goes on from there. The drawback to trying to create a home-grown equivalent to Nashville in New Orleans, declare Snyder and Ramsey, is the latter city’s emphasis on commercial growth, monetization, formula, repetition and having music on the radio to sell products. On the other hand New Orleans, especially its Jazz, which was supposedly "born" there, and other local sounds, is about improvisation and new structures and reflects the music of the streets.   READ

Mary Halvorson: I’m not attached to genre

The long-winded questions from Tone Madison’s Grant Phipps often seem to go beyond information into idle speculation, but in one of her first interviews after she won the MacArthur Foundation's so-called “genius grant”, guitarist Mary Halvorson handles the queries with aplomb. Admitting that she was shocked when she won the MacArthur, since her music is anything but easy listening, she rhymes off her early influences from Jimi Hendrix to Robert Wyatt, as well as more conventional Jazz icons like Johnny Smith and Duke Elllington. She also states that studying with multi-reedist Anthony Braxton when she was 19 was what opened her up to the world of musical possibilities. Content to let the interviewer rhapsodize about her preference in guitars, the intricacies of some of her solo work, and the nuts-and-bolts of her arrangements for larger bands, she manages to explain how familiarity with the players’ skills makes her working quartet with drummer Tomas Fujiwara, bassist Jason Roebke and cellist Tomeka Reid so worthwhile. Adding that her experiences with larger groups are both challenging and liberating, she deftly shoots down some of his more arcane suggestions for her musical future. READ

Carlo Costa and Pure Improvisation

Part of the burgeoning Brooklyn-based free music scene with different bands and his Neither/Nor label, drummer Carlo Costa tells Jazz Right Now’s Cisco Bradley that he was drawn to the genre because of its textural approach and fragility. Rome-born but American educated, Costa became a  drummer after hearing Jack DeJohnette on a Keith Jarrett record, but was soon attracted to the more wide-ranging approach of percussionists  Jim Black with Bloodcount and Joey Baron with Masada. After an apprenticeship in straight-ahead Jazz and even playing vocal-oriented, country & western-like music, he found that working with players such as bassists Pascal Niggenkemper and Sean Ali and brass players like Steve Swell, Dan Peck and Joe Moffet led to creating a sort of minimalism that let him “stop thinking and just be in the moment.” Now involved with solo percussion exploration as well as extended performances, his concept that improvised music is best expressed when spurred by the group ideas of certain players, like the ones with whom he plays, is now confirmed.   READ

Hamid Drake Describes 13 Records that Affected his Life

Not only is Chicago’s Hamid Drake one of the most in-demand percussionists throughout the world improvised music scene, but he’s open to all genres of music. He proves that in this deep dive into his record collection with The Quietus’ Sean Kitching. Every one of the 13 records cited has a special meaning for the drummer. Confirming his deep spirituality, they include sessions that feature other Cosmic Jazz truth-seekers like trumpeter Don Cherry, pianist/harpist Alice Coltrane, alto saxophonist/poet Joseph Jarman and, of course, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. His funk selections point out the influences he received from the drummers in New Orleans quartet The Meters and guitarist Jim Hendrix’s Experience trio; while his non-American picks include a live performance by sitarist Ravi Shankar's group. Still, the sessions that he praises above all the others, are two: a co-leader disc he recorded with Chicago saxophonist Fred Anderson, his long-time mentor, and the first session he recorded as a member of the group of New York bassist William Parker, with whom he has since played in different ensembles for over 20 years. One reading drawback: the article is spread over 14 separate sequential screens, READ

Preparing the Underground Piano: Scott R. Looney

Pianist Scott R. Looney doesn’t really perform under the ground in the Bay area in which he lives, but as Berkeleyside’s Andrew Gilbert points out, his low profile is the equivalent of leading a subterrestrial life. One of the reasons for Looney’s relative obscurity is that he always performs using a piano prepared with brass and copper instruments which jangle and judder when he manipulates the inner strings. Add metal bowls, Chinese cymbals, and a cheap version of an E-bow and the sounds, produced by Looney, in a trio with bassist Lisa Mezzacappa and percussionist Kjell Nordeson, are far from conventional. Looney says he was drawn to this form of keyboard creativity after seeing Denman Maroney, a New York pianist whose hyperpiano uses some of the same implements when he plays. But Looney had already been set on an experimental musical path after studying with advanced trumpeter Paul Smoker at an Iowa university. Since that time Looney has worked with many like-minded improvisers, including bassists Damon Smith and Joëlle Léandre, percussionist Gino Robair and saxophonist Oliver Lake. An interest in subverting conventional keyboard sounds came to him as a child, he recalls, when he heard one of his parents’ Ferrante & Teicher LPs featuring the duo using novelty effects. READ

Bonding through Over Comping: George Freeman and Billy Branch

Although he jokingly tells The Chicago Reader’s James Porter that “Jazz is bougie, Blues is low-class”, harmonica player Billy Branch, 67, has formed a playing partnership with guitarist George Freeman, 92, the last surviving member of the first generation of one of Chicago’s most notable families of Jazz musicians, which included his late brothers Bruzz Freeman, a drummer and Von Freeman, a tenor saxophonist. An important part of playing this sort of music is sophisticatedly accompanying soloists or “comping” in Jazz parlance. And one of the reasons for the new partnership, Freeman and Branch agree is that each musician says the other is talented in following that “comping” tradition.As the two continues to bring the twin poles of Jazz and Blues closer together, Freeman has featured Branch on his most recent CD, while Branch for his part has started to include Jazz standards composed by the likes of Benny Golson and Miles Davis to his set list.   READ

From the Forest and the Sea Come Stories: Matana Roberts

Pegged to her recent commission by the London borough of Waltham Forest to create a  mixed media installation about the area’s People’s Forest, Chicago-born saxophonist/storyteller Matana Roberts tells The Quietus’ Adam Quarshie how a performance like that relates to her ongoing multi-disc Coin Coin project. Concerned with the journey of shackled African Americans by ship from the slave forts of the Ivory Coast and Ghana, through their years of slavery as well as escapes through the Underground Railroad to Canada and latterly their experiences during enforced segregation in the American South, it’s a massive undertaking which takes in many situations. Besides other purposes, she explains, “forests have often acted as refuges for those escaping violence and oppression”. In fact one track on her latest CD is about a woman of color who hid from the Ku Klux Klan for months in a Tennessee forest. That woman was Roberts’ distant relative, with the story told to her by her grandparents. This linkage between her own history and the larger story of American Blacks informs all parts of Coin Coin and her life. Roberts' love of cold water sports such as swimming and for instance, is a link to her mother’s experience swimming in segregated Chicago pools, while her 12-day cargo ship experience from Liverpool, England to Halifax, Nova Scotia recalled those months-long slave ship journeys. More hopefully, Roberts says her live shows are a way of building immediate community between people who don’t know one another. "You have people in the room that may not like each other after they leave. But in that moment, there’s love.” READ

Sound Insights from saxophonist Catherine Sikora

The interview is by necessity and intent rather short, since this un-bylined piece in A Jazz Noise only seeks the answers to seven questions directed at Irish tenor saxophonist Catherine Sikora. Still the article does call attention to her most high-profile recordings with guitarists Han-earl Park and Nick Didkovsky, and provides a Bandcamp link to it, as well as one to her duo with drummer Brian Chase. Besides that, the pithy interaction touches on the earliest sound influences of the now New York-based Sikora; the discs she has mostly recently appreciated (ones by John Butcher, Morton Feldman and Matana Roberts); her preferences in collaborators; how she balances preparedness and inspiration when she improvises; and, more importantly, how she feel streaming and downloading are affecting musician and musicians (hint: negatively).